Know Thy Customer – Lessons from Tribal Pakistan
Balochistan is the largest province of Pakistan, neighboring Iran and Afghanistan. Born into a tribal family in a community where girls were required to live in parda-veil and seclusion, and to continuously face various kinds of violence as part of the tribal setup, Khalida Brohi was to become one of the girls who were married at the age of 13. But instead her father allowed her to go to school in Karachi, Pakistan’s capital, where she and her family now live, and her life took a very different turn.
Still connected to her tribe and home community, Khalida had the constant intention to use her freedom as a resource to make sure others in her community might be as lucky as she. Right when she turned sixteen, a girl very close to Khalida’s heart was killed in the name of the girl’s family’s honor. At that moment Khalida was called to change the culture of honor killing in Pakistan.
Until age sixteen Khalida did not know Pakistan had laws as a nation, since the tribal leaders determined and upheld the law in her community.
In the six years since, she along with a group of other girls has built Participatory Development Initiatives, a community outreach and development organization that advances women’s rights, but also focuses on climate protection and land rights, recognizing that these are ultimately interrelated.
So how did a girl in Balochistan become so powerful in her community?
The following is transcribed from my conversation with Khalida (the feminine form of “eternal” in Arabic).
“Important are the tribal leaders”
In the local communities down in Pakistan, it’s always been the way that the local communities lean on someone; they need to find to depend on…. That is where the structure of tribal leaders comes in. Peoples’ acceptance gives these leaders a right to stand powerful within the communities. And just like that, whenever something happens in the community, the people look for someone to blame. Even when something happens inside of a house, the people go to the tribal leaders to ask what to do about it.
Tribal leaders are usually powerful landlords, called Sardars or zamindars. These are supposed to solve all the conflicts in the village, and even exchange the girls to be married if a conflict between various tribes takes place.
Then there are Mullahs- They are meant to be the spreaders and keepers of Islam. Job-wise they get people married, and give Friday sermons in Mosques.
And the other powerful sector is Midwives. People say that they give life to a child as majority of tribal areas have no doctors. Midwives also solve problems between women. If there is a conflict between a man and a woman, the man has more power, and he will go to the tribal chief.
Never has it been that the women have any problem with the men, because she can not show that there is a problem. It can be a matter of dishonor. The whole community would point at her being a bad woman if she says there is a problem.
When PDI first started advocating for an end to honor killing, we majorly focused on advocacy. In rage we were out on the streets protesting, influencing the government to change the laws, lobbying and using the media to highlight the issue. That too is a positive effort, but what we didn’t realize is that a high percentage among the tribal people don’t even know that there is any Law in Pakistan, nor do they care, because of how tribal structures are made. The tribal people truly depend on tribal laws.
That is how we realized that the other important thing, along with Advocacy, is to work directly with the local communities. Right when they are using a dirty glass we shouldn’t tell them they are doing that, but instead we should show them a clean glass.
So we decided to promote the positive aspects of tribal traditions as a strategy to help bring an end to the negative customs, and to bring along the local communities themselves in the effort.
But first we always have to find the connection.
First we have to prove that we are not outsiders
For me it’s really important – I always feel the connection with my tribe. Some things are different because of my education. So first we have to prove that we are not outsiders.
We don’t show them that we are going to work for them. We show them that we have the same values and respect for them. This allows us to sit in the Kacheris, the big meetings of tribal chiefs. They’re done in Otaq, which may be under a tree. And with hookah and Kahwa- it’s a tradition.
We have to show them that anything that happens to the village, we also feel that too.
One thing that has been really difficult for me as a girl is that I am not allowed to sit there, in the Kacheris.
So instead I train my colleagues and they go. We at PDI are a team of those people who themselves are from the same tribe and rural communities, who already know how to do these things. They are so good at this. They know how to talk, when to talk, and what to say, to engage the tribal leaders.
The tribal chief… has this deep desire to do good
The other thing that is really common in Baluchistan is that tribal leaders stand accountable. Not only for the provision of some essential services but to help in any other way possible. Whenever we go into Katcheri, we find out that the tribal chief deep down wants to do something to help. And he has this deepest desire to be of use, and do good things so he will be talked about even after his death. Solving conflicts is a good thing for these leaders, and exchanging girls to solve these conflicts is a normal behavior for them. When he does this a tribal leader is content to have done his part.
So, tapping into this instinct of theirs to do good for their communities, we talk with these leaders about how we will develop your community, we will preserve your traditions, and do anything you want. We don’t talk about honor killings.
For them, they feel proud when they have preserved the custom. They are eager to become a part of our activities this way, as the only thing that results from it is the promotion of tribal traditions.
If we help the tribal leaders help their community, help them preserve and promote their customs, then we can do more to help the women. We began creating enterprises that do things that promote the customs- through creating embroidery, or performing music- that also employ women. They bring economic value to the community this way. Then we can support the tribal leaders who will say honor killing is not the way.
Advocating for accountability has led to new opportunities
In Sindh province we decided to extend the programs of supporting women to have a say and empower them. The Sindh Government had a program to distribute farmland to landless peasant families, which was actually an initiative of late Banazir Bhutto, but was being done in a very dishonored way. The land that was being allotted was 60% not in a condition to be fertile: it was all dunes, sandy areas, salinated lands, water logged areas, and any other patches of land. It was certainly not being used by the government so they threw it away by giving it to these poor women and families.
We began to closely monitor the land distribution to see if the intended impact was being achieved.
Monitoring this process, we highlighted our reports in national media and to the government at a national level. For a year we used all the evidence we could and finally the government announced it would have PDI as an observer in their process and sitting in on their decisions of giving away the land. The PDI team was a part of distributing thousands acres of land to landless peasant families.
Soon after that phase, with our constant advocacy the government announced the second phase: to distribute land to 100% women peasants only! Which was a big success for us and we are a part of that distribution process as well.
Currently PDI is helping provide aid to the people who have lost everything in the floods. There are so many. We are trying to reach 12,000 families but there are millions affected. We are trying to make others aware of the huge impact this disaster has created, so they can understand the need and feel that there is a way forward, and to act along with us.
Read more about the flood and PDI’s efforts to respond to the flood and other work: http://www.pdipakistan.blogspot.com/